In the event of a crisis, the American people rely on news media to keep them updated on the status of the situation. During these times it is more important than ever for the public to be able to trust that news outlets and the journalists that staff them will remain objective and avoid unfounded speculation when reporting information that could potentially change the course of events.
However, in a media climate where outlets are driven primarily by a quest for ratings and profit, journalistic responsibility and investigative reporting are bound to be replaced with sensationalism as competitors try to outdo each other. All too often, this means reporting unconfirmed information, like CNN did when they prematurely reported that the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombing had been arrested under the guise of “exclusive” reporting.
While that was a serious blunder on the part of CNN, they were outdone by the New York Post, but not in a good way. The Post was also trying to break a story before its competitors, except they nearly did serious damage to the investigation following the incident in Boston when they wrongly depicted two men as suspects in a photo on their front page.
Not only did this have the effect of giving some people the impression that the police had already found the suspects so they no longer needed to help with the search, it also had a serious negative effect on the lives of the two men pictured.
Not long after the photos were published Reddit users were able to identify one of the men pictured as well as his workplace, potentially putting him in serious danger. While he was able to get the police to clear his name, in many ways the damage cannot be undone.
There has recently been a growing trend of news consumers turning to citizen journalism and crowd-sourced reporting in the vacuum left by traditional news sources, especially in rapidly changing situations. While these alternative sources can often outpace news networks, it is important to remember that in most cases citizen reporters are not professional journalists and aren’t required to verify facts or follow a code of ethics like the professionals.
The biggest danger with anonymous reporting though, is the absence of responsibility. A professional journalist who wrongfully accused someone of a bombing attack could easily lose their job or face legal action, but there are no such repercussions for an anonymous poster on the internet.
In the end the media errors surrounding the incidents in Boston did not drastically change the course of events for the worse, but they easily could have. I think we can all benefit by taking these mistakes as a lesson. When breaking news is reported, always stay skeptical of new facts until they are confirmed by a credible source. And don’t believe everything on the internet.
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